WASHINGTON has long been one of the most receptive cities in North America for the British folk-rock movement led by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.
Now several local bands -- such as Dogs Among the Bushes, Ironweed and the New St. George -- have popped up playing music in the same tradition. This strong D.C. audience for British folk-rock should welcome the recent release of old and new music from England plus a local debut.
FAIRPORT CONVENTION --
"In Real Time: Live '87" (Island 7 90678-1). The current Fairport lineup contains only one original member (guitarist Simon Nicol), but drummer Dave Matticks and bassist Dave Pegg are longtime members. This live album comes from the quintet's celebration of the band's 20th annviversary this past August in Oxfordshire. It betrays the jazz-rock influence of the hard-hitting Matticks and the Jean-Luc Ponty-like violinist Ric Sanders.
The imposing Fairport tradition absorbs these new influences, however, and preserves the signature sound of moody harmonies on story ballads and acrobatic harmonies on the up-tempo dance tunes. Highlights include the high-speed, bawdy version of "The Widow of Westmorland's Daughter"; the thundering march arrangement of "Matty Groves"; and Nicol's subdued, knowing vocals on two Richard Thompson songs, "Crazy Man Michael" and "Meet on the Ledge."
FAIRPORT CONVENTION --
"Heyday" (Hannibal HNBL 1329). These dozen songs from live BBC radio broadcasts in 1968-69 have not been released on record previously. They capture the best-ever Fairport lineup (Nicol, Thompson, Sandy Denny, Ian Matthews, Ashley Hutchings and Martin Lamble) singing the American country and folk tunes that so influenced the originals they put on their records.
The band plays with the restrained country-rock lyricism of Gram Parsons' bands, and Thompson's guitar snakes through every song with the country grace of Chet Atkins and the rockabilly irreverence of James Burton. Denny and Matthews perfectly capture the Appalachian harmonies on the songs from the Everly Brothers and the Byrds; Denny's solo vocals on Bob Dylan's "Percy's Song" and Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand" remind us just what a special singer she was.
SANDY DENNY --
"Like an Old Fashioned Waltz" (Carthage CGLP 4425). This 1977 solo album had long been out of print and hard to find until it was reissued this year. It was well worth the search before, for it showcases Denny in her most romantic mood. She combines her personal, throaty tone with instinctive phrasing on original songs that weave nature imagery into her romantic reveries. A special treat is her stylish remake of Sammy Cahn's "Until the Real Thing Comes Along."
"Tsubo" (Varrick VR-030). Former Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick leads this all-acoustic quartet through its second album (named after the Japanese word for pressure point). The result is exquisitely rendered chamber arrangements of folk forms -- sort of a British variation on Virginia's Trapezoid. Swarbrick and Chris Leslie play lovely twin fiddle parts against the guitars and mandolins, and everyone gets to sing at least one moving ballad.
THE OYSTER BAND --
"Step Outside" (Varrick VR-034). Clive Gregson, the former leader of Any Trouble and now a member of the Richard Thompson Band, produced this first American release by this British folk-rock quintet. The emphasis is definitely on the rock, as the rhythm section pounds behind the '60s folk harmonies and strumming guitars. The mixture of traditional songs and originals by singer John Jones and fiddler/saxophonist Ian Telfer emphasize strong narratives, but the approach is sometimes overly somber.
DOGS AMONG THE BUSHES --
"Dogs Among the Bushes" (DAB 001, 2255 12th Place NW, D.C. 20009). This debut cassette by the D.C. quartet is as good as any Celtic folk rock coming from across the ocean these days. Produced by Slickee Boy Mark Noone, these four songs and two instrumental medleys showcase the quicksilver agility of Terry O'Neill's fiddle as it plays tag with Charlie McVicar's flute. C. B. Heinemann's sturdy tenor and traditional-sounding compositions give the sparkling music its emotional center. These guys could use a trap drummer, though.